(In French, On Cable TV, November 2019) There’s something quite provincial in Hollywood making a movie about class differences in Beverly Hills—I can’t figure out whether Down and out in Beverly Hills is hypocritical or self-flagellating, although with writer-director Paul Mazursky at the helm, it’s closer to a gentle critique than outright satire. The plot gets moving once a bum nearly drowns in a rich family’s house, and they welcome him out of a sense of guilt. But the bum (as is tradition) sees clearer and thinks farther than his new dysfunctional family and before long sorts out all kinds of big and small problems. The plot schematics are obvious, but the film does a little bit better on moment-to-moment viewing thanks to a capable cast. In between Nick Nolte, Bette Midler, Richard Dreyfuss and a young Elizabeth Peña (plus Little Richard as a neighbour), the film does have its charms, and recognizably aims for more than just the laughs. Thematically, I’m bothered by how the film doesn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions—I’m not sure that the dysfunctional family won’t be back to dysfunction within the week. This may be a consequence of Mazursky not quite going for comedy and not quite going for drama—Down and Out in Beverly Hills ends up being a less-than-satisfying hybrid, watchable but not admirable.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) There are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t like Barbra Streisand—her diva behaviour is legendary, leading to enough tabloid stories to make her legendary in her lifetime and cemented for the younger generation with “The Streisand Effect”. Even from a strict filmgoer’s perspective, she’s often the strangest part of any movie in which she’s the uncontested star—far too young in Hello, Dolly!, unconvincingly male in Yentl, showboating in The Way We Were, self-indulgent in A Star is Born, etc. But even knowing all of this, there is a magnetic star quality to her screen presence that compensates for a lot. Call it sex appeal, or sheer talent or most probably a mixture of both. In The Prince of Tides, she stars and directs and, perhaps miraculously, keeps her most outlandish tendencies to herself. She looks amazing in glasses and white nylons, directs with a nice narrative flow and lets Nick Nolte take the spotlight that his character deserves. Nolte is terrific as a damaged man with deep-seated trauma, far too quick to parry probing questions with jokes but intensely damaged nonetheless. Streisand has a comparatively easier role as his therapist. In the grand tradition of romantic drama, a major professional breach of ethics soon follows. The character-based drama is handled effectively, although the film is too long at nearly two hours and a quarter—and by “helping” the characters get over their trauma, it sands off nearly everything that was interesting about them out of the story. By the end of the film, Nolte’s character is psychologically healthier but also completely uninteresting. Still, The Prince of Tides did exceed my expectations: It’s quick to create narrative interest, and even a weaker third act can’t quite erase the goodwill created by the early scenes in which patient and psychiatrist are engaged in a ferocious game of wits. I liked it well enough, and have another movie to use as an example when asked about my uncharacteristic liking of Streisand.
(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) If ever you find yourself watching Another 48 Hrs and wondering where much of the plot went, be comforted by the fact that the first cut of the film ran nearly an hour longer, and got mercilessly over-edited in the few weeks before its wide release. In other words, much of the story got left on the cutting room floor, leaving only the set-pieces in place. Which isn’t nearly as insane as it sounds: As with a number of buddy-cop movies spawned by its predecessor, Another 48 Hrs is unremarkable for plot (except when it’s missing) and noteworthy for the banter between its characters and the quality of its action sequences. Here Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte are back in more or less the same shape as in the first film (egregiously so in the case of Murphy’s character, as the film goes out of its way to ensure that he has remained in jail in the interval rather than have him evolve a bit), and director Walter Hill ensures that the film goes on its merry humdrum way. Another 48 Hrs does have a few strong moments: the bus-flipping sequence is cool; there is another intimidate-the-bar sequence to ape the first movie, and the motorcycle-crashing-through-the-adult-cinema-screen sequence reminded me that I did see Another 48 Hrs at the drive-in back in 1990, even though I remembered nearly nothing else about the movie itself. It’s a noticeable step down from the already average original, but at least there’s Nolte and Murphy bickering to make up for the dull shootouts, incoherent story and generic direction. That’s what sequels gave you back in 1990.
(On DVD, September 2017) Ah, the eighties … peak era for police brutality and casual racism being presented as comedy engines. Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy team up in 48 Hrs. for a gritty crime comedy that prefigures much of the buddy-cop films to follow. The script is unrepentant about its use of racist profanity and brutal violence—it’s meant to be funny, but modern audiences may disagree. This being said, the film does works relatively well at what it tries to be, however distasteful this may be. Murphy is responsible for most of the laughs, most notably in a sequence in which he intimidates an entire redneck bar. Anette O’Toole has a far-too-brief turn as a peripheral girlfriend that disappears from the action without much fanfare. Director Walter Hill keeps things hopping steadily, which helps in watching the film today. While interesting as a prototype of latter action movies, 48 Hrs. has a limited appeal from today’s perspective—it’s been imitated, remixed and redone so often that Murphy aside, it’s difficult to see much of it as being distinct today.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Thrillers don’t need a lot to plot to work, but there’s an acceptable minimum of twists and turns that have to be met and Return to Sender never manages to have more than two plot beats in mind. Rosamund Pike stars as a likable nurse violently assaulted in her own home. As you may expect, the rest of the film is very much about vengeance, even though the film may try to hide that fact. Much of the last act of the film is obvious and linear, without the slightest twist to keep things interesting. It doesn’t help that the film moves at a languid pace, easily allowing viewers to piece together what’s going to happen before it actually happens. As a result, Return to Sender is a remarkably dull film even for a dark vengeance thriller. The film’s low budget and pedestrian directing doesn’t help. Despite those significant flaws, it’s easy to see why Pike took the role; the film is centred around her, and there are eerie parallels between her character here and in Gone Girl, bordering on typecasting. She easily remains the best thing about Return to Sender, running circles around the other actors (well, except Nick Nolte as her father) Pike completists (not something to be ashamed of) may want to take a look at the film, especially now that it’s on Netflix. Everyone else, though, may have better things to watch.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Being neither a fan of combat movies nor family drama, the most remarkable thing about Warrior is how well it managed to keep my attention. After a shaky first fifteen minutes, the stakes become clearer: These are two brothers from a broken family picking up Mixed Martial Arts and eventually facing off in the ring. The story isn’t much more complicated than this (and the repetitive third act contains very few surprises), but the film itself is well-made, with strong performances to lure viewers in. Nick Nolte earned an Oscar nomination for his role and Joel Edgerton turns out a strong performance as a family man forced to return to the ring in desperate circumstances. Still, it may be Tom Hardy who gets the thankless role of the younger brother cast adrift in his own isolation. It all amounts to a fairly predictable, but well-executed story, one that doesn’t suffer as much as you’d think from an improbable sequence of contrivances. There isn’t much to say about the grainy cinematography (except that some shots of Atlantic City look pretty nice), but the direction is a straight-ahead affair. Heavily slathered in the usual Americana sauce (family, military, sports), Warrior takes itself a bit seriously, but in doing so manages to avoid many of the traps that a less-earnest approach to the same subject would have encountered. It’s manipulative, of course, but baldly so. It’s arguably best seen as a double-bill with The Fighter.
(On cable TV, January 2012) Safely devoid of surprises, this romantic comedy about a slacker billionaire having to grow up is a vehicle for Russell Brand’s comic personae more than anything else. It’s a risky bet, as the spoiled man-child shtick can quickly grow wearisome and then irritating. Nonetheless, this Arthur remake manages to walk along that line and remain on the side of viewers’ affections: Never mind that Jennifer Garner is more interesting here as the romantic antagonist than in many of her previous movies: It’s Brand and Helen Mirren as her nanny that steal the show, with occasional assist from Luis Guzman and a gruff Nick Nolte. The plot beats are intensely predictable, which makes the small details of the story seem more important. The dialogues are surprisingly good, with a good understanding of conversation-as-argument and a bigger vocabulary than most romantic comedies. Still, if those strengths do save Arthur from being nothing more than a typically average remake of a much-better film, they don’t do much more to strengthen the film. At best, we end up with a watchable but inconsequential film that will gradually sink in memory even as the 1981 original will endure.